Why Phantom Seeds From China Are Showing Up In Americans’ Mailboxes — An Explainer

We’re living in weird times. So if the news that mysterious seeds from China have shown up unsolicited in mailboxes in all 50 states and Canada freaks you out and fills your head with paranoia, we recognize that… but you need to chill. This likely isn’t a huge conspiracy that will destroy American life as we know it (as if we need help with that). Still, that doesn’t mean if a mysterious package filled with seeds arrives unsolicited at your doorstep you should plant them.

The packages — showing up across the nation — are currently being investigated by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, who confirm that the packages were marked with labeling from the China Post, the official postal service of China. According to CNN, some of the labels on the packages indicated that they contained jewelry but instead they’re filled with packets of seeds in clear plastic with little labeling.

Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry has claimed that the China Post address labels were forged and has asked the USPS to send the packages to China for further investigation.

While officials are still investigating who exactly is behind the packages (and what type of seeds they are), the USDA believes the packages are most likely part of what is known as a “brushing scam” — a review-fixing scam that some third-party sellers use to falsely boost their customer ratings on platforms like eBay, Amazon, and Etsy.

“At this time, we don’t have any evidence indicating this is something other than a ‘brushing scam,'” the USDA announced in a statement released Tuesday. The idea is that sellers use the names and addresses of random customers, send them random (valueless) goods, and write glowing reviews on their behalf. For what it’s worth, it’s not a new technique.

“When people get a package they didn’t order, that’s one of the first things we suspect” Katherine Hutt, chief communications officer for the Better Business Bureau told CNN.

So why seeds?

The most likely reason is that they’re incredibly lightweight, which allows the scammers to save on postage costs. According to a study published by Ecology and Evolution and hosted at the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, the average seed weight of Potamogeton pectinatus, a submerged plant found in the arid zone of northwest China, is just 0.24 grams per 100 seeds. Comparatively, data collected by Hazera Seeds shows that 400 Cherry Tomato seeds and 150 Pepper Seeds equal out to one gram.

That’s not to say the seeds showing up in random mailboxes throughout America are Potamogeton pectinatus, Cherry Tomato seeds, or Pepper seeds — again no one knows what the seeds are just yet — but seeds generally weigh much less than most mail-able goods. Thereby making them cheaper and the scam more cost-efficient.

In the event that you become the recipient of unsolicited seeds, you should keep the packaging intact and contact your state plant regulatory official or APHIS state plant health director. According to CNN, being the target of a brushing scam does not necessarily mean your personal information has been stolen, but it’s not a bad idea to check your bank accounts and credit statements in the event fraudulent purchases were made on your behalf.